China Power

Is Xi Sending an Ultimatum to Former President Jiang Zemin?

What to make of an unusual article in the People’s Daily.

Is Xi Sending an Ultimatum to Former President Jiang Zemin?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Angélica Rivera de Peña

Eleven days after Guo Boxiong, one of Jiang Zemin’s lieutenants in the People’s Liberation Army and former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and Politburo member for a decade (2002-2012), was expelled from the Party for corruption and handed over to the military prosecutors for legal procedures, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published an article on August 10, 2015 on the issue of old men in politics.

In the article, titled “Look at the phenomenon of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ dialectically,” the author argued that those who have retired should not interfere with the work of those in power. Playing off the Chinese metaphor, the article said it should be considered normal for the “tea to get cold” as soon as the tea drinker leaves the tea house. In fact, many leading cadres have just done that. After their retirement, they no longer intervene in the business of their successors. However, some leaders refuse to accept the new normal and would like to “keep the tea hot” after their departure. In other words, they would like to retain “residual power” after their retirement.

In the Chinese media outside China, this article has been widely regarded as Xi’s ultimatum to Jiang Zemin. This is because the major casualties of Xi’s anti-corruption drive, such as Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, have been mostly Jiang’s men. It is likely that Jiang will have to come out to defend his legacies and confront Xi over the new president’s management of state affairs. There have also been rumors that Jiang had been planning to depose Xi Jinping at the forthcoming Beidaihe meeting with the assistance of Zhou Benshun, former party secretary of Hebei.

At least on the surface, though, this article could hardly be read as an ultimatum from Xi Jinping directly. It is hard to imagine that the author, Gu Bochong, is writing for Xi. A military professional writer, Gu is very likely to have retired from the military himself. In Baidu Baike (an online Chinese encyclopedia), Gu’s bio is not up to date. In the entry, he is described as having been a staff with the deputy divisional rank since 1997. This is impossible. No one could have stayed at the same rank for 18 years! In fact, he has appeared in the media with different military ranks since 1997. He was described as Colonel Gu in July 2009 and Senior Colonel Gu in the October of the same year. He could have retired in 2012 at the age of 50 because of his rank (full divisional rank).

What has made Gu’s article very interesting is that it was published by People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Party. But its publication does not necessarily reflect the view of Xi Jinping but the perception the editors of the newspaper have of Xi’s view. As Yang Zhenwu, former editor-in-chief and now director of the People’s Daily, once admonished on May 3, 2013, correspondents need to learn to look at the issues from the height of the Tiananmen (i.e., Zhongnanhai).

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It is likely that Xi does want to send Jiang an ultimatum but has not. Now the editors of People’s Daily have sent one on his behalf.